Great Detectives in Film

With the holiday movie season being in full swing, one of the anticipated sequels is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. To me Sherlock Holmes is probably the most popular detective in history, hands down. It made me wonder if there are any other detectives as popular. My guess is no, but here are some that make the top of the list as memorable detectives in film.

JJ Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) – One of Nicholson’s best characters in my opinion. He plays a detective that specializes in matrimonial cases. Hired by Ms. Mulwray to follow a suspicious husband. Things get dark and twisted as Gittes starts to suspect he is being set up finding the person who hired him wasn’t Ms. Mulwray at all. This movie contains a famous movie quote you may have heard before: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” A top notch detective film noir type of thriller! And a great 70s throwback flick to see Nicholson in his younger years.

Great Film Detective Trivia: Because this film was the first of a planned trilogy, Nicholson turned down all detective roles he was offered so that the only detective he played would be Jake Gittes.

Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941) – This film isn’t film noir like, this is film noir at its best. Things start going wrong for Sam Spade right away as his partner is killed on a case. Trying to clear his own name, he discovers a sinister plot to obtain the rare and valuable Maltese Falcon. It contains some great lines for Spade’s character too – “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble” and “We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.” A true must see classic! If you’ve never seen it before, I highly recommend it.

Great Film Detective Trivia: Word-for-word and scene-for-scene, Maltese Falcon is virtually the same as the original novel published in 1930.

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971) – The roof-top killer Scorpio is loose in San Francisco and is demanding money or he will kill again. Just put Dirty Harry on the case. Known for his “dirty” attitude and blunt way of handling situations, Clint Eastwood created one of the more memorable police detectives in film history. Even if you have never seen the film or its sequels, it’s memorable lines proceed the character: “Go ahead, make my day.”

Great Film Detective Trivia: Warner Brothers orignially sought out Frank Sinatra to play the role of Callahan. When he turned it down, they offered it to Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

Those are my favorite film detectives. What are some of your favorites? If you are headed to the theater to see the new Sherlock Holmes, be sure to pick up the first film, Sherlock Holmes (2009), on DVD or Blu-Ray at HPB and get up to speed on the adventure. And always remember, no talking or texting during the movies!

— Jim

One thought on “Great Detectives in Film

  1. Bogart also did a nice turn as Phillip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep." But how about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan in the 2005 film "Brick?" They took the Spade / Marlowe noir template and applied it to a high school kid in modern day Southern California.It's a blast to watch, and the moreso if you're already a fan of the hardboiled detective noir genre (literature and film).

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